It’s not just what you do but also where you do it!

I’m delighted that through the Early Childhood Outdoors blog we’ve been able to share several research studies that help to push the boundaries of how we support young children outdoors: Katie Parson and Jo Traunter’s research on parental perceptions at Hull University; Nicola Kemp and Jo Josephidou’s Where Are the Babies? study at Canterbury Christchurch University; Alex Barrable’s work at the University of Dundee on supporting autonomy, Natalie Canning’s work on children’s empowerment in play at The Open University; and of course Tanya Richardson’s PhD investigation on children’s language use and development at the University of Northampton.

The case study settings in Tanya’s research showed that a child-led outdoor environment was most conducive to high quality speech and language.  As concerns about the ‘language gap’ at both policy and practice levels intensify due to the continuing impacts of trying to manage the Covid-19 crisis (along with how to provide suitable interventions) it is very relevant to hear once again from Tanya.  She provides us with some details about what she found makes an environment ‘high quality’ for language use and development – all things that the outdoors is very good at doing.  Her findings emphasise the complexity of environment required for creating an effective place for language acquisition – providing the variety and richness of communication situations needed to build up language during the early years of childhood.

Dr Tanya Richardson, is Programme Leader for Early Childhood Studies at the University of Northampton and is currently working on taking her research in this area forward.  My dream is for a preventative ‘intervention’ approach to become widely adopted (including by speech and language therapists) that fully harnesses what an excellent place the outdoors can be for supporting rich language acquisition, from birth onwards!

It’s not just what you do but also where you do it!  By Dr Tanya Richardson

There has been emphasis recently on children “falling behind” with regards to their speech and language development and as such the UK government have invested £9 million in intervention programmes to start to address this.  Now, an intervention of this kind is fairly substantial and surely shall benefit many young children who need additional support within this area.  This can only be applauded then surely?

Looking closely at the intervention programme, it can be seen that much thought and planning has gone in to how children can be aided with their speech and language whilst on a one-to-one with an adult, and whilst engaging with pre-determined activities.  It is not disputed that interactions are important when young children are learning to speak, however… we really do need to think about how and where our children learn best.

Research has shown that children often learn better whilst moving, and whilst being in the outdoors.  My doctoral study focussed on the impact of environments on young children’s speech and language and found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the environment in which children play and learn does make a difference to the quality of their speech – in a nutshell the higher the quality of the environment then the higher the quality of speech.

And what makes a high-quality environment?  Well, my research found that quality of language was enhanced by what was in the environment as well as what happened in that environment.  Some aspects identified were as follows.  When children had access to open resources, transportable loose parts which can fire the imagination and prompt exploration, their language was seen to improve.  It was found that it was also necessary to include provocations within the environment, to promote awe and wonder and to encourage discussion.

Conversely though, it was found that children needed familiarity to aid their speech and language development – they need areas in which they are comfortable and secure and can talk about past events with ease.  Items within an environment that promote teamwork were shown to help the quality of speech, and at the same time areas where children can be quiet, collect their thoughts and process the events of the day were significant.  The space in which to explore was shown to be beneficial and the luxury of time was also found to be of great support to language development; time to wallow in play, time to talk, time to revisit areas of interest…

What these few aspects show are that the environment does not have to have mountains of money spent on it, it does not need designers or trendy resources, but what it needs is some thought and consideration along with viewing from the perspective of a child and what encourages them to speak and communicate with others.

What is important in these environments, wherever they may be, is that children have the opportunity to explore, to investigate, to challenge themselves physically, to experience new things and to experience the awe and wonder that is a crucial aspect of childhood.  By giving children experiences that teach them new skills and corresponding new vocabulary, this enhances their lexical diversity.  Perhaps more importantly though, it gives them the desire to speak, the desire to express themselves and fills them with joy and excitement.  If you put yourselves in a similar position, would you have more to talk about around the dinner table if you had had a really exciting challenging day, or when you had had a day full of one-to-one meetings at work?  I know which I would want to talk about more!

So, as we consider ways to help young children enhance their language, yes think about intervention, but equally importantly, I urge you to think about the places that these interventions take place and how this takes place.  Also, we should be giving children opportunities to play and explore, and really need to consider the quality of EVERY aspect of the environment in which they have the chance to do this.

Every child deserves the very best from us – and from their environment.

You can watch Tanya in conversation with Kathy Brodie about her research in the Speech, Language and Communication Summit and find her published papers here.

All images are (C) Menna Godfrey, Liz Edwards or Jan White.  Images must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.


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